Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium calls community to action

Co-Director of Project South Emery Wright served as keynote speaker for 'The Fierce Urgency of Now' in Breed Memorial Hall on Monday, Jan. 22. (Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily)
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Tufts held the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium, entitled “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” on the evening of Jan. 22 in Breed Memorial Hall. The event featured a variety of distinguished speakers and performers who highlighted the importance of civic engagement and decisive action in the face of injustice, inspired by the work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, the Toupin-Bolwell Fund, the Africana Center, the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy (CSRD), the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and the University Chaplaincy, according to the Student Life website.

According to Director of Community Partnerships at Tisch College Shirley Mark, the symposium has been occurring annually for many years. Mark said the theme of “The Fierce Urgency of Now” came from a King quotation that Katrina Moore, the director of the Africana Center, introduced to her.

The full quotation, from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is as follows: “We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

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According to Moore, the title is fitting for today’s political and social climate and reflects King’s multifaceted activism.

“We picked this theme because we want to make sure that King is not looked at as this ‘I have a dream’ icon, and that in his later years he was making a lot of different changes and being a lot more vocal,” she said.

Moore stressed that the event aims to bring members of the Tufts community together.

“It’s important for us to have this event on the Tufts campus to bring us together so that we know that we are working on this together… on equality and equity,” she said.

Mark, who was involved in the event’s organization, also said she wanted the symposium to reflect a collaborative spirit.

“There has to be collective effort … for people to learn from each other, be inspired by each other and sustain each other for the long haul,” she said.

Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris, whose office co-sponsored the symposium, agreed, saying the words of King should inspire Tufts community members to think critically about what we can do as a university community to act against injustice and oppression.

“It really is about thinking about … [what] we can do to be a more just, equitable community here,” he said. “But [there’s] also knowledge when we think about what we do as a university — about creation of knowledge, dissemination of knowledge and knowledge-based policy and action.”

The event began with a set of welcome remarks by Harris, Chief Diversity Officer Amy Freeman, and Moore. The introductory speakers reflected on the powerful words of King in the context of our current political environment.

The opening remarks were followed by a performance by members of Tufts’ Black Theater Troupe. The performers recited excerpts from King’s speech, bringing his words to life for the attendees.

Kerri Greenidge, co-director of the African-American Freedom Trail Project in the CSRD and professor in the department of history, took to the podium after the performance. In her speech, Greenidge provided historical context for acts of racial injustice and the intent of King’s words. She spoke about how journalists in the 1960s and even now have misrepresented and diluted King’s radical call to action, unduly conflating the separate ideas of equality and justice.

Greenidge’s words set the scene for an inspiring discussion by three panelists including: Chris Cato, the Green Initiative project manager at YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit organization that gives low-income young people opportunities for education and employment by teaching construction skills; Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director at MassVOTE; and Lydia Edwards, the Boston city councilor for District 1. Mark moderated the discussion.

The panelists spoke about their individual efforts to contribute to a communal fight for social justice. Cato stressed the importance of creating mentorships to help others learn.

“We’ve got a job to do — raising awareness, preparing, training and educating,” Cato said.

Crawford agreed, demanding action from the audience.

“When I look at the current state of affairs [and] all the injustices that are happening around us … The issues have not changed [since the time of King]. There’s still so much more to do,” she said. “My battle cry for 2018 is ‘And what are we gonna do about it?’ It will take a collective effort to help our communities to understand fully the power of their voices. We can’t sit back. We can’t wait.”

Edwards, who was elected this past November, spoke about how her experiences as an attorney fighting for the wages of immigrant, working-class individuals allowed her to earn the votes of people who had the opposite ideology or way of life. At the end of her speech, she directed her words towards young people, emphasizing that they should learn to work together in a time of political unrest.

“Urgency does not mean rushing to the finish line. Urgency means building a real movement,” she said. “Your generation is probably the most intelligent and most inclusive and most altruistic, honestly, that we’ve ever had. And I hope that you take that and lead.”

The symposium came to a close with a final keynote speech by Emery Wright (LA ’99), co-director of Project South. According to its websiteProject South  that works to generate social movements in the South to address social, economic and political problems.

Wright touched upon the messages and struggles behind King’s words, highlighting the importance of taking vigorous and positive action with urgency to fight against oppression using “diverse strategies and world views.”

“I believe that we’re going to face some significant challenges as a country this year … Our future will depend on the actions and sacrifices for collective good that young people like you all choose to make in the days ahead,” he said.

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